Art can imitate life and life can imitate art. These are clichés, but both of them are true.
I was recently reminded of these statements’ veracity. This term, my literature students are reading a half-dozen novels from around the world that consider different kinds of conflict. On Monday, we began working with Robert McLiam Wilson’s Eureka Street, which is set in Belfast, Northern Ireland during the mid-1990s, the tail end of a time period known as the Troubles. For those who don’t know, the Troubles were roughly three decades marked by sectarian and political violence between Catholic nationalists (or republicans), who desired for the province of Northern Ireland to join the Republic of Ireland, and Protestant unionists (or loyalists), who desired for Northern Ireland to remain part of the United Kingdom. Most of the violence was committed by republican and loyalist paramilitary groups although the British Army and the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the majority Protestant police force, were also occasionally guilty of perpetuating rather than solving the Troubles.While most of the conflict was confined to the six counties that comprise Northern Ireland, the violence spilled over into the Republic of Ireland, England, and elsewhere. According to the Guardian’s Data Blog, 3,568 people were killed during the Troubles, 1,879—over half—of them civilians.Eureka Street is simultaneously hilarious and poignant, and McLiam Wilson is not shy about dealing with the violence of the Troubles. It’s art imitating life. The novel takes on violence as a major theme and contains numerous violent scenes, including one that forms the narrative’s centerpiece (no spoilers beyond that). In the first chapter one of the protagonists, Jake Jackson, meditates on the nature of bombs, a favored paramilitary method of inflicting harm in Northern Ireland. Bombs “were loud and frightening in your gut like when you were a child and you fell on your head and couldn’t understand why it hurt like panic in your belly. . . Bombs were like dropped plates, kicked cats or hasty words. They were error” (McLiam Wilson 15).One of my students pointed out this passage and discussed its significance to the novel’s early depictions of Belfast and of Jake. In response, I said something about bombs being part of lived reality in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and in other parts of the world—but far less so in America.Later that afternoon, I learned about the two bombs that went off in Boston, at the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Like just about everyone, I became more horrified and sad as details emerged. It didn’t help that I spent last weekend in Boston with my dad and my brother, or that I know people who live there. The three of us were never in danger and, thankfully, everyone I know is fine.The same can’t be said for the three people who died, the ten people who had limbs amputated, the more than 170 people who sustained injuries, and the uncounted number of people who are and will continue to be physically and emotionally traumatized by a senseless act of violence. All week, I’ve thought about what happened in Boston. I keep coming back to Monday morning’s discussion of Eureka Street and to the work we’ll do with the novel, as the investigation into who slaughtered, maimed, and injured all those people continues. It’s life imitating art.One might think it frivolous to emphasize the importance of studying a novel about a historical moment in a distant land and relating it to a tragedy that just occurred in this country. True, Boston isn’t Belfast, but dismissing the connection denies the ability of art to perform one of its vital functions: to exert positive influence on the lives of people, even and especially during a traumatic time. Art that imitates life, even if the imitation is of something ugly or unpleasant, can help us deal with that ugliness and unpleasantness. In the coming weeks, years, and months, those who were affected by the Boston bombings will find solace in and maybe even create art in response to the events. Art will enhance the individual and collective healing processes.In fact, it’s already begun. Two Boston museums opened their doors for free on Tuesday and the Boston Conservatory Theater is offering free admission to an upcoming series of performances. And on Wednesday night, when the Boston Bruins faced off against the Buffalo Sabres, the crowd sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” in unison.Art imitates life and life imitates art.